Sunday, March 1, 2009

Plane Rides, Downpours, and a Whole Lot of Tea

Here begins what we hope to be the first of several interesting blog posts on our trip to Israel...

Dad and Marianne arrived in Washington at a perfect time, just as I was finishing up the last few tasks that needed to get done before leaving. I had brought my suitcase with me to work that morning, and decided to leave my car in the garage for the week.

We had a wonderful meal of gigantic salads at Chop't, just around the corner from my office in Rosslyn before setting out for Dulles Airport. Marianne commented on the beautiful sky as we made our way westward on the Dulles Access Road, which we all hoped to be a prophetic sign for our respective journeys. In an apt observation, she commented on how this was the type of color that could not be replicated by paint or even the most impressive of digital cameras.

I dropped them off at the departures curb with our belongings, and drove the car out to the Economy Lot, being sure to leave myself a note on my iPhone of where it was parked. Waiting for the shuttle bus, I met a very nice group of UVA students who were on their way to Sao Paolo as an "Alternative Spring Break Mission" to build houses in Brazil.

To make a long story just a bit shorter, my status in the United Mileage Plus program and membership in the Red Carpet Club made the entire Dulles process an incredibly pleasant venture for all, so we were VERY relaxed by the point at which it was time to board the plane to London. I was even able, at the last minute, to secure an Economy Plus seat for Marianne, which ensures a slightly deeper seat pitch and an additional five inches of legroom. While walking down the jetway with her during our priority boarding, she hugged my arm tight and said, "I'm never traveling without you again!" It's moments like these that I always think about our family concept of travel karma, and how grateful I am to be given such opportunities to spread this kind of happiness in places that often bring the worst out of people.

Our flights themselves were a bit uneventful. Dad and I ate our "chicken" dinners while watching the movie "Burn After Reading," which was cute and entertaining, but perhaps only so as a captive audience. We both fell asleep fairly quickly afterward and slept most of the way to London with the usual 45 minute-1 hour intervals of waking up and shaking arms back to life, etc.

During our short stopover at Heathrow in London, we met some very nice and interesting people. One such gentleman with whom we were chatting turned out to be an attorney at Holland & Knight, which is one of the larger worldwide law firms with which I occasionally work. He was incredibly friendly (especially considering the fact that he was a litigator!), and was heading to Israel on some business. We agreed to trade business cards once settled on the flight.

The BMI flight to Tel Aviv was adequate. The seats were a bit more comfortable, but we sorely missed the extra legroom, and it was that type of flight where every square inch was occupied. The flight attendants were particularly friendly, however, and Dad and I both enjoyed our drinks of Israeli tomato juice "with ice, lemon and sauce." I hope I'm up for it during our 7am flight back on Sunday, because it was extremely yummy. Maybe I'll be daring and have them give me some vodka on the side... ;) Dad made some friends among his row-mates, and we had a great time laughing it up with them in both Hebrew and English. I was happy to even help one of them out during the landing with some Tylenol Sinus, as he looked like his head was about to explode.

We arrived in Tel Aviv almost exactly on schedule around 7pm local time to some serious storms, some moderate turbulence, but an otherwise safe landing. After walking the 8 or 9 miles from the gate to Passport Control through the caverns of the new-ish Ben Gurion Airport (I picked Dad's jaw off the moving walkways a few times), we were through to baggage claim with no complications, and walking through customs with all our stuff within minutes thereafter.

Marianne met her sister immediately, and we all enjoyed the tearful few moments between them. Dad had a short catch-up with Rabbi Chinitz, and we got their phone number to stay in contact and at least arrange to meet back up with Marianne for the ride home.

When we parted ways with Marianne, Dad and I noticed that we were standing right across from the cell phone rental, and who should be there, other than our good lawyer friend from London. After what seemed like 45 minutes or so of them trying to get him set up, doing some networking and whatnot, we were able to get our own phone and local phone number, and head toward the rental agencies while calling Mom to give her our new number.

Reut with Budget Israel was incredibly friendly and helpful, and managed to give us quite a bit more than we had reserved for very little. By the time we were pulling out of the airport, it was already a little after 9pm, but we were both so ecstatic from the experience thus far that we barely minded the torrential rain and perpetual construction. We used our phone to contact Sylvia and Shira, to let them know we had arrived. We decided to stop briefly in Netanya on the way to Haifa primarily so that I could use the bathroom, but managed to get roped into some good coffee, great cake, and even better conversation. They were all positively glowing from the excitement of Meytal's recent engagement and the upcoming party to celebrate the same.

After a brief 20 minute stop, we were back on the Coastal Road, heading north to Haifa through the driving rain. I pointed out some landmarks in Netanya to Dad on the way back to the highway for reference, and he was amazed at how big everything has gotten.

We arrived in Haifa around 11pm, and thankfully the rain had stopped. I made the same mistake I always do on my way to Shira and Mark's apartment (note to self: next time it's RIGHT at the circle, not LEFT), so the customary phone call was made to get last-minute redirection.

Shira and Mark sat up with us for an hour or two, catching up over a light meal (for us) of some hot vegetable soup, bread, assorted cheeses and some delicious babaganoush. Dad and I were in bed by around 1:15am, and fell asleep with a fair amount of ease. Considering the possibility of jetlag, we both slept fairly soundly through the night and morning, and finally resolved ourselves to get out of bed around 9:30am.

Shira had prepared a beautiful spread for our breakfast after we both showered off our travel-shmutz. We had some fresh Israeli salad with olive oil and some of the Ala'ea red salt we had brought from Hawaii, along with more assorted cheeses and a beautiful frittata. We shmoozed over some hot tea with milk before setting out.

We began with a short drive to Yafeh Nof, which is a neighborhood just below the Merkaz HaCarmel area, looking out over the bay-side of Haifa and at the top of the massive gardens leading down to the Shrine of the Bab, which is a famous Baha'i Temple and the center of their faith. Most people would recognize it by its iconic copper dome. The gardens are maintained in a lavish state by the Baha'i members, but are unfortunately closed to everyone. Even viewing them from afar is quite a pleasure, as you can surely see from our pictures.

We took a short stroll through the neigborhood there (Dad insists that it was uphill-both ways), as Shira pointed out some interesting houses. We also made a brief stop at the home of a local iron sculptor who has filled an area in front of her home with some beautiful works.

We then returned to our car for a scenic drive through the French Carmel neighborhood to the very top corner of the city where there is a Carmelite Church called "Stella Maris" that has been there for hundreds of years. This area has a truly beautiful view both out toward the Mediterranean Sea, into the Haifa Bay, and northward toward Lebanon. We took some photos in the gardens of Stella Maris, where there were some particularly interesting modern sculptures of angels. Unfortunately, as we wandered leisurely through the grounds, we were unaware that they were about to close the building for the afternoon, so we were unceremoniously turned away by the man who was locking up.

As we returned to the parking lot, we were unfortunately unable to help a driver with a dead battery, as there was a car parked between us and his jumper cables would not be able to reach. I was eager to be given the option to spread a bit more good travel karma, but alas, it was not to be.

As Shira had forgotten her cell phone, and we were having no luck reaching Mark from ours, we ditched some last minute plans to sit at a cafe at the Dan Panorama, and instead had some coffee and chocolate croissants back at Shira and Mark's apartment. Frankly, the view is better. At this point, we were also able to review and upload some of our pictures, with which we were reasonably satisfied.

We got in touch with Mark, and made plans to meet at a favorite restaurant of mine, Shira and Mark's, which is called "Avazi." It's a pretty good Israeli chain, and I was very happy to bring Dad into the Avazi experience as well. Basically, it's a Middle Eastern restaurant where you order a main course (basically, some kind of meat or fish on skewers), and they bring you freshly baked sesame laffa and about 20 different kinds of salads on little tiny plates which are replenished as they are consumed. The amount of stuff they bring you there is practically embarassing, and we had to ask them to stop at a certain point as were getting nervous at the amount of delectable food in front of us that was clearly going to be wasted. Dad, Mark and I had two long skewers of roasted lamb (by long skewer, I mean about two and a half feet long, with about a foot or so of succulent meat), and Shira settled for one skewer of beef.

As the table was being cleared, Dad and I had a moment of panic when we realized that Mom was going to KILL us for not photographing the spread that had been laid out before us. Please forgive us, Mom, and if it makes you feel better, we are happy try to find another Avazi somewhere in our travels this week to recreate the experience... I personally blame it on food-related over excitement.

Mark parted ways with us after the meal in order to catch up on some sorely needed sleep of which we had deprived him the night before. Shira, Dad and I milled about the Haifa Mall for a bit, later crossing the street to the "Castra," which is sort of like a mall, but the exact definition of which we are unable to agree upon. The Castra is covered in works of art, on the outside mostly of a biblical nature. We had a good time taking some pictures of some of the murals in an outdoor courtyard area, and some of the other sculptures there. On the inside are a few stores, cafes, and a good amount of art galleries. Since Shira had lost the argument over the check at our supper, she was determined to load us down with a few gifts to take back to the U.S., and we were happy to oblige at that point.

We took a drive home through heavy rush-hour traffic (which meant it took about 7-10 minutes longer than normal), as the Castra and Mall are located next to a newer area of Haifa that plays host to such behemoth local employers as Intel, Google and Microsoft. After the obligatory tea with croissants and cookies (it had already been at least two hours since we had drank tea with fresh mint at the restaurant, after all!), we took a short drive with Shira and a newly-refreshed Mark down the hill and up to the Qrayot area, where Eliezer and Pircha live in Qiryat Bialik.

Dad, after valiantly trudging up to their fourth-floor walkup penthouse apartment, was positively giddy to spend a few hours catching up with his cousin and childhood chum Eliezer. We sat and drank tea (noticing a theme here?) with various treats. I have to say that he has been the perfect wingman on the trip, and I doubt I would come to Israel without him by my side again. My Hebrew is good enough, but having someone else (especially one who enjoys the spotlight) to help facilitate the conversation has been wonderful. I feel less like a wallflower with him around, for certain.

We headed back to Haifa and arrived back at Mark and Shira's around 10pm, where we sat down for a light late meal of some hot vegetable soup and more wonderful shared stories while our pictures from today uploaded to Picasa.

Now, as the clock nears 1am again, we must bring this travelog to an end. To be continued soon!


Marilyn said...

Wow! And I thought my blogs were long! Adele and I read your blog together and both of us have the same question. How many meals was that in 24 hours?! Seriously, we enjoyed every word. It wasn't long enough. And I WILL kill you for not photographing the banquet, so you had better find another Avasi and take lots and lots of photos. Can't wait for tomorrow's installment!

Marilyn said...

P.S. Plane rides is/are two words